Mel Bay, a jazz guitarist, was born in Bunker (Ozark Mountain), Missouri on February 25, 1913. At the age 13 he bought a Sears instrument and played his first gig a few weeks later. He still remembers playing up to the point where his fingers were undeveloped. Shortly thereafter, Mel picked up the tenor banjo and continued to master both. Mel was a part of a wide variety of characters and bands throughout his teens. No “gig” was more unusual than the one Mel landed with, Mel calling him a “snake oil salesman”. The flamboyant peddler would drive his Pierce Arrow car, complete with its steer horns, to the middle of a small rural town. Mel would ride in the car and play the tenor banjo like a pro. The peddler, soon after the crowd had gathered, took control and began extolling the wonders of his “wonder potioner”.
Mel Bay moved to St. Louis in 1933 and began his professional career. He was a member of many local and touring bands. He also landed staff guitar positions on several radio stations. Mel formed his own trio (piano bass, guitar, and guitarist) and continued to play for over 25 years. He was equally proficient on all fretted instruments, and professionally played tenor, plectrum banjo, Hawaiian guitar, mandolin, and uke.
While Mel was busy pursuing his playing career Mel continued to tutor up to 100 students per week. Due to the difficulty guitarists have in creating great-sounding rhythm sections, and the mediocore note recognition ability of guitar players, he decided to start composing jazz guitar tabs and tablatures instructional books.
Mel was soon asked to publish tutorials on guitar by soldiers who wanted to learn music under the GI Bill shortly after World War 2. Mel founded his first publishing company in 1947 and published his groundbreaking book, “The Orchestral Chord System For guitar”. It is still available in print and remains one of the most popular rhythm guitar chord books. Soon after, he wrote “Modern Guitar Method”. Mel traveled for many years, meeting with guitar players and teachers in every town he visited and showing them his books. Mel claimed to have met almost every American guitar teacher at one time. In the 1950’s, Mel Bay’s publications and the guitar gained a lot of popularity. The business has grown steadily since then.
Mel used to sell D’Angelico jazz arched guitars. He would always have at least 5-6 “lying around” the house at any one time. Mel was a professional player on the D’Angelico New Yorker Model, but his favorite guitar is the Mel Bay Model that John D’Angelico gave him as a gift. The well-known guitar featured all the features of the New Yorker, but it was a “cutaway”, which meant that the neck was shorter. The Mel Bay “Modern Guitar Method”, which features the same instrument, has featured it for decades.
Mel Bay’s guitar publications have sold over 25 million copies, according to one estimate. Mel often replied that he stopped counting years ago when he was asked. His “Modern Guitar Method”, alone, has sold over 7 million copies! Mel Bay is a key figure in the worlds of instructional materials and guitar music in this century, as well as in any previous century.
Steven Herron, a Peabody Conservatory-trained guitarist, helps others become better guitar players. His company ChordMelody.com has an extensive selection of tablatures and instructional books by Mel Bay. Learn more about Steven’s popular monthly Banjo for Sale at McNeela Music.